Creating Dairyland by Edward Janus

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Somewhere in the tug between progressive thought and traditional farming, between hard work in the fields and modern science, and between mutually supportive co-ops and the individualistic yeoman spirit, you’ll find the story of the Wisconsin dairy industry.

Or, more precisely, Edward Janus will find it on your behalf, in the pages of Creating Dairyland: How Caring For Cows Saved Our Soil, Created Our Landscape, Brought Prosperity to Our State, and Still Shapes Our Way of Life in Wisconsin (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, $26.96, 208 pages).

Wisconsin Historical Society image of a 1934 milk strike | taken near Burlington, WI

Behind the Chamber of Commerce-worthy topic and the bruising subtitle is a hell of a good story, and one that Janus tells with zest and clarity — Creating Dairyland is rich in stories of farmers, cheesemakers, and industry pioneers ripped from the pages of history. While outright violence in the book is limited to milk dumping aimed at co-op-busting farmers (above), there’s conflict aplenty: man versus nature, city versus country, and tradition versus progressive politics and science.

Janus manages to weave in a number of stories and personalities that will be familiar to modern-day locavores, from Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese to the Heimerls of Saxon Homestead Creamery to the Gingrichs and their remarkable Pleasant Ridge Reserve. There’s a rich sense of voice to the book — subjects are allowed to speak at length, in full paragraphs, and the information imparted is much richer for the oral-history style of presentation.

Mark Fay / Creating Dairyland

The author (above) deserves recognition as well; Janus is a former dairy farmer, an oral historian, the founder of the nationally respected Capital Brewery, and leader of the group that brought minor league baseball to Madison. It’s quite likely that Janus’s wide-ranging exploits helped give him the breadth of perspective to make the many connections that form the foundation of Creating Dairyland — far from a dry history of dairying in Wisconsin, the book dips into popular culture, politics, science, and economics in the course of telling its story.

Janus draws connections from the European Enlightenment through the German Freethinkers movement to the settlers who came to Wisconsin in the 19th century and ultimately led the state’s dairy revolution. That the state’s agricultural boom would be a largely scientific one, led by dairy associations, co-ops of progressive, inquisitive farmers, and researchers at the University of Wisconsin is far from obvious. And Janus ably lines up the dots so that readers can see the links between sanitation, microbiology, transportation, and Wisconsin’s rise by the early 20th century to a pre-eminent position among milk-producing states. (It’s still the second most productive state in milk, lagging behind massive California, and it retains the title of the foremost cheesemaking state in the union.)

Janus has done more than write regional history — he has put together a cogent argument for the good done by public universities and the power of enlightened association in the name of economic fairness and stability. Although its stated topic is cows and cheese, the actual subject matter of Creating Dairyland is the creation of a great American state. It’s a story that any Wisconsinite (or, heck, even an enlightened Minnesotan or Iowan) should seek out and enjoy, chased by a tall glass of milk.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of Lake Superior Flavors, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a regular on-air contributor to Minnesota Public Radio.

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